Imperial ambitions

In June of this year, news services reported that a Chinese housewife named Zhemao had published more than 200 largely fictional articles about Russian history on Wikipedia. She had invented entire battles and a fabulous silver mine located in the (actually existing) town of Kashin. Some contributors to the resulting buzz on social media asked jocularly: had perhaps the whole of Russian history been invented by Zhemao? Indeed, propaganda, legend and the writing of history fade into one in early chronicles of Rus, the medieval state to which modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all trace their ancestry. More recently, the mathematician and “new chronologist” Anatoly Fomenko has mounted fantastical claims for a Eurasian medieval super-empire centerd on Rus.

The evanescence of fact when it comes to the distant past is no surprise. How much, after all, is known about Wessex or the Celts? But King Alfred and Boudica have lost the purchase on national consciousness that they enjoyed back in 1920, when Hutchinson’s Story of the British Nation was published. In Russia, as in other post-Soviet countries, speculation about when, where and why Prince Vladimir (or Volodymyr, as he is known in Ukraine) made Christianity the official faith of Rus has a primary bearing on the present. Marx-Leninist universalism, marginalist even in the 1960s, has been abandoned. The term osobyi put‘ (“Sonderweg”, or “special path”) has been borrowed from German history to assert claims about development according to specific local norms. Where Marxism-Leninism had taken as dogma Russia’s evolution from “primitive” origins through feudalism to capitalism (along with the country’s capacity to cut short the capitalist phase), historical orthodoxy in Russia now emphasizes the country’s incomparability with other societies and cultures: its unique historical destiny.

Rodric Braithwaite and Orlando Figes, in their short histories of Russia, explicitly address the prevalence and purpose of historical myth, including the special pleading of the country’s current leader. Since the early 2000s the Russian government has promoted the concept of a “Russian world” that embraces “compatriots” in the sense of those speaking the Russian language, wherever they may be resident. More recently, Vladimir Putin has asserted Russia’s right to the territories of the pre-1917 Russian empire and speculated that, like Peter I, Russians of the current era are destined to “return and consolidate” lost land. Braithwaite and Figs discuss such developments and the ways in which history has been manipulated to legitimize policy. At the same time they make a case for Russia’s particularities in terms familiar from the writings of Russian nineteenth-century historians: as both authors maintain, it is the country’s terrain and physical geography, in particular its absence of natural boundaries, that has generated its abiding fear of attack by the “external enemy”.

Figures contends in The Story of Russia that fundamental to Russian history were “the subordination of society to the state and its military needs” and “a policy of territorial aggrandisement to secure Russia’s frontiers”. Thus, “history shows that Russia tends to advance its security by keeping neighbors weak countries, and by fighting wars beyond its borders to keep hostile powers at arm’s length.” Braithwaite makes different but in some respects a comparable argument in Russia: Myths and realities: “Authoritarianism was an obvious and practical way of mobilizing resources for war and preventing national disintegration in countries with a still underdeveloped system of administration”. This second formulation, suggesting the possibility of evolution to more “developed” types of political and social structures and institutions, raises questions about evaluation and change that neither of the books quite answers. Both essentially take for granted that, while incidentals might alter over time, what Figes terms “the structural continuities of Russian history – geographic factors, systems of belief, modes of rule, political ideas and social customs” – remain in place.

Such an emphasis on “structural continuities” was evident also in Geoffrey Hosking’s Russian History: A very short introduction (2012). Yet that book, despite its introductory aims, was more attentive to subtleties than either Figes’s or Braithwaite’s discussion. As well as continuities, Hosking identified lasting tensions in Russian history: “the amalgam of radical centralization with a sense of universal religious calling”, and the implicit conflict between medieval Muscovy’s, and later Russia’s, role as self-appointed successor to Byzantium and its ambitions as a Eurasian empire.

Such tensions persist to this day, and indeed Figes and Braithwaite explicitly aim to elucidate the present through reference to the past. This makes their tendency to simplify the history of Russian imperialism all the more regrettable. The problem with the argument about Russia’s absence of natural boundaries is that its expansion was not necessarily limited by these where they were encountered. This was the case in the Caucasus and on the Asian steppe, where the pursuit of the “external enemy”, far from being purely defensive, also resulted in the mass slaughter and deportation of Circassians in 1863-4, and the equally bloody, if Small-scale, military murder of Turkmens at Gök-Tepe in 1881. Neither Figs nor Braithwaite mentions these episodes, and the official campaign campaigns to Russify subjects populations hardly figure, except for marginal attention (from Braithwaite) to Poland.

If one can hardly understand the present without attention to imperial expansion in the last decades of the Russian empire’s existence, it is equally the case that a grasp of the late-Soviet period is fundamental to the comprehension of Russia today. The pinnacles of government are inhabited by people who were educated in Soviet schools and universities, and who are former members of the Communist Party. It may be the glory days of tsarist empire that some of them choose to celebrate, but it was late-Soviet institutions and associations that shaped them all. Unfortunately, the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods receive perfunctory discussion in both books, which instead reiterated clichés about economic and political stagnation that recent scholarship has challenged. It is certainly true that Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership had run out of steam by the start of the 1980s. But behind the scenes the late 1960s and the 1970s saw extensive discussion of economic and social policy that in many ways prefigured Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Indeed, the preoccupation with efficiency, productivity and value for money was so pervasive in the social sciences that some have even argued for the Soviet origins of neoliberalism.

Whether or not one agrees with such arguments, they provide an important counterweight to the belief that everything in Russia is decided by strong leaders and that institutions and groups have little real significance. Notable particularly in Braithwaite’s book is a paucity of engagement with social and cultural history. Figes takes a broader perspective, but in discussing Russian civil society he draws mainly on material from his own studies, particularly Natasha’s Dance: A cultural history of Russia (2002) and A People’s Tragedy: A history of the Russian Revolution (1996).

Admittedly, neither Russia nor The Story of Russia is intended for specialist readers, or indeed for university students. Rather, their expected readership appears to be those seeking general information about a country that has become headline news for all the wrong reasons, and school students preparing for public examinations. Readers in those groups will enjoy lively potted biographies of rulers and leaders, summaries of the effects of events, background on some domestic and foreign policy issues – all material of a kind that can be used to address standard essay topics (“What was collectivization and what effects did it have?”). Both books are well written: Braithwaite’s is a lucid outline, while Figes’s account has imaginative sweep and a capacity to encapsulate in a memorable way. Yet one wishes that the books had engaged more deeply with historical problems along the way.

Undoubtedly, Rodric Braithwaite and Orlando Figs convey a sense of what is specific about Russian history and of how that relates to the geopolitical situation now. Less certain is how effectively they guide readers towards a better understanding of Russia’s own mythmaking. Visions of the past that owe more to invention than deep engagement with sources have been ubiquitous in recent thinking about and within Russia. Sometimes the boundaries between wilful fiction and political orthodoxy have become porous of their own accord. When the distinguished historian Yevgeny Anisimov (writing as Ya. M. Senkin-Tolsty) published his Flann O’Brien-style tall tales about the northwestern countryside, Ferdinand, or the New Radishchev (Ferdinand, ili Novyi Radishchev, 2006), he later found them cited in all seriousness on official websites for settlements in the area. But there is a huge gulf between such boosterism and the use of the term Lebensraum by Russian nationalists in 2022 to justify the attack on Ukraine, or indeed between invented history of the ludic kind and Putin’s disquisitions on the essential unity of the East Slavonic nations.

How do we make sense of all this in a single culture? How do we trace its historical origins? Why have Russia’s imperial ambitions surfaced precisely at this point? Such questions wait for other writers.

Catriona Kelly is a Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Her most recent book is Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Studio under Brezhnev2021

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